Adios Suffering. Dirty Kanza extra large 2019

Photos: Eric Wynn, Paulina Batiz, Jason Ebberts, IM Design, and Nick Legan. Words: Dan Hughes

As a bike shop owner and journeyman endurance bike rider, I’ve often wondered if we in the bike industry effectively market the joys of riding your bike over great distances and extreme terrain. So often the imagery seems to focus on the suffering of the pursuit, with gritty black and white images of people caked in mud or epic grimaces on their faces as they toil to get to the finish line. This is supposed to hook future riders on the idea of riding bikes in their free time? Abject anguish is fun? Suffering is the antonym of happiness. Says so right there in the dictionary.

Lately, I’ve been over it. In fact, lately I’ve been over a lot of stuff. The last couple of years have been a bit of a roller coaster for me and I’ve had some moments that could have been clinically defined. I didn’t want to ride my bike, I felt isolated from friends and family, and while I never seriously considered self-harm, I wasn’t above eating and drinking my way to the same destination. It was not fun to be me, be around me, or probably even think about me.

After ten Dirty Kanza 200s, a Trans-Iowa, a few Gravel Worlds, and six Rebecca’s Private Idahos, I can tell you that the idea of suffering for the sake of suffering doesn’t hold the same allure that it once did. Don’t get me wrong…I think I still have the capacity to suffer, but seeking it out? Maybe not. Maybe I’m getting soft. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe suffering is not that fun anymore. I quit last year’s Trans-Iowa when a beer and a burger in a tiny Iowan town seemed like a better idea. I quit last year’s Dirty Kanza XL when I was tired, a big storm was blowing in, there was still a long way to go, and the prospect of watching my son race the high school race was the perfect excuse-tree I needed to pull the plug. Afterwards, I felt like I had let people down, but honestly I didn’t care. I was done with suffering.

So it makes perfect sense that I would sign back up for this year’s DKXL, right? Well let me explain.

Before I do however, I should point out that from a fitness perspective, I have never been in worse shape in my life. In 2015 I rode 4300 miles from January 1 to prepare for the Kanza. 2016 was 33% less…2900 miles. 2017? 23% less than the year before (2299). 2018 was even less, and 2019 was the worst yet…only 1300 miles since the first of the year. 70% fewer miles than 2015. But I didn’t need the stats to tell me how much I was slacking, as I could see it every time I looked in the mirror. Close friends called me “fat” to my face, and questioned how if I abandoned the DKXL last year, how was this year going to be any different? My mom even said “you’re asking for a heart attack if you do that race.” True words all, but those fewer miles meant I was avoiding suffering (in training) and was instead chasing happiness.

But I do like to challenge myself, so the question was: could I pull off a DKXL and have a good time? 350 miles of Flint Hills gravel? Without suffering? From the couch? I was about to find out.

The DK organizers have a new banner campaign to memorialize the men's and women's winners from each year of the Kanza. Cool to see younger versions of yourself. Photo by IMDesign.

The carnival of Dirty Kanza has expanded greatly over the years. In the past, it was possible to drive down to Emporia on Friday afternoon and launch into the weekend. Not so anymore. A serious fear of missing out (FOMO) meant that I wended my way down to the Flint Hills on Wednesday evening; for a number of reasons but also so I could be bright-eyed and bushy tailed for some serious modeling work on Thursday morning for the Shimano folks.

A quick word about the Shimano angle. For the past 18 months, Shimano (the bike industry’s biggest supplier) has been working on developing a gravel-specific component group. To do so they have enlisted the aid of about 20 gravel ambassadors from across North America (of which I am honored to be one…fun fact: I’m the oldest codger on the squad) to amass feedback and provide guidance to folks in the industry that are grappling with exactly “what is gravel?” Interestingly (to my eye), this has been done by bringing the “Shimano Gravel Alliance,” as we’re known, together at various events to ride, commune, and occasionally race…but on every trip the goal has been to have fun. Weird. Is that even marketable? I don't know, but the result has been a tight-knit group of riders that are riding really cool gear, having enjoyable experiences, and spreading the word about it far and wide.

Nerd alert: If you’re reading this novella to get the deets on Shimano’s new offering, here you go. Shimano’s new GRX group is a mid-tier component group (perfect for about 90% of the folks that are tackling these gravel endurance events) that comes in a myriad of options: 1x, 2x, 10-speed mechanical, 11-speed mechanical, 11-speed electronic, a bunch of cassette options, a dropper post, in-line hydro brake levers and more. The biggest changes are an improved lever shape (with a ribbed hood for grip) that are FAR more comfortable than anything I’ve ridden in a long time and which also feature a repositioned pivot point for better braking from the tops of the hoods. Additionally, they’ve moved the crankset outboard by 2.5mm for better clearance between the rear tire and the front mech. Like many things in the bike industry (and because I’m a jaded, crusty, old dude) I approached all of this stuff with a “really…how can you make it better?” attitude, but let me tell you: this stuff is the shit. I have never been more comfortable on my gravel bike and the new hood shape allows me a plethora of positions over the course of a long ride (339 miles of Kanza gravel, no gloves, no blisters). And while I might have eschewed the lack of a 50-34 front ring option, I never missed it last weekend and was immensely grateful for the low 31x32 option for climbing those steep and loose Kanza climbs. That this stuff will be available on a lot of bikes and not just halo bikes is pretty damn cool. I’m all about making gravel accessible to more people. Okay, here endeth the techno-babble.

My ride for the DKXL. S-Works Diverge with Shimano GRX parts. Choice.
Better lever shapes, cool bar, dropper post.

Anyway, there were 7 of us on Shimano GRX for the Kanza and we all got together on Thursday morning to shoot some video and photos for the product. As the fattest and ugliest of the assembled models, I strategically chose to position myself at the back of every shot. It took us most of the morning and at the end I received a compliment that I was “a pretty good hand model.” Eat your heart out George Costanza.

When you're a hand model, no one notices your jowls. Photo by Eric Wynn.
Notice how I strategically positioned my right arm to cover my man-boob. Pro. Photo by Nick Legan.

Then it was back to Emporia for rider check-in where we were issued our race numbers and tracking beacons (so folks could follow where we were on the course throughout our journey) and I mingled with the other DKXL riders, some of whom were clearly there to win (like Jay Petervary, Lael Wilcox, Matt Acker, and Jeff Kerkove). We were also informed that due to high water on the roads, the course was going to be shortened to 339 miles, down from 350. Fine by me, I was there to suffer as little as possible.

Thursday night I attended a VIP party at the town pub (Mulready’s) and mingled with friends past and future. Spirits were high (and consumed) and I left with some good locker room inspiration to get the XL done. Friday morning was largely spent getting my rig ready and filling my Camelbak, but I also found time to talk with former Sunflower staffer Josh Patterson (now professional freelance writer for the likes of Outside Magazine) about my bike and intentions for the race.

It's stuff like this at mile 0, that gets you to mile 339. Just sayin.' Photo by Paulina Batiz.
Eventual men's winner Jay Petervary was already moving so fast at the start that he's blurry (and in the foreground of this shot). Photo by Eric Wynn.

Then it was time to line up and join my other DKXL buddies (about 80 of us) and head out on our adventure. We sang Happy Birthday to Nick Legan, a fellow Shimano Gravel Alliance member and mere pup at the tender age of 40, and at 3pm we were off! The roll out was smooth and chill but I could already see the heavy hitters feeling frisky at the front. We hit the gravel and the pace ratcheted up beyond what I thought was reasonable for 339 miles. Some guy on aero bars wiped out in the middle of the pack, but other than that it was pretty sedate. We got to the Salsa chaise lounge pretty early in the race and I was fortunate enough to be near Nick’s wife (and another Gravel Alliance member) Kristen Legan. I tried to give her her time alone on the lounge but she was gracious enough to insist on a shot with both of us in it. It was the least I could do to rub her feet through her Shimano S-Phyre shoes.

There is absolutely nothing wrong about rubbing the feet of another man's wife, right Nick? Photo by Salsa Cycles.

I took a natural break, chased back up to Kristen and Emporia strongman Ryan Balkenhol and we all motored on to the first stop in Madison. This year, with more favorable winds and lower heat, I was in a MUCH better place than I was at the same time last year and my mood showed it. We refueled and headed out for the next leg to Eureka. This particular leg has featured on many editions of the 200-mile DK route, and on last year’s XL route, and it is my least favorite of all time. With a little extra mileage and a shit ton of chunky minimum maintenance roads, it is not fun and I was on my hands and knees last year after completing it. This year was completely different. While not exactly enjoyable, every time it looked like it was going pear-shaped, I reminded myself that I was riding for happiness and geared down and spun my way along. I didn’t make good progress, but I arrived in Eureka a full two hours ahead of my pace from the previous year and a great deal fresher.

Crushing gravel as the sun sets on the first day. Photo by Eric Wynn.
On cruise control. In no hurry. Photo by Eric Wynn.

Special shoutout to the folks at Cake Batter Batter in Eureka who upon hearing that the Casey’s in town would close at midnight (instead of being open all night) generously offered to open from 5pm to 3am to serve DKXL riders’ needs. While the Casey’s was certainly open when I got to town, I chose to patronize CBB and was rewarded for it with an excellent chicken wrap that I nibbled on for the next 6 hours. That I was the first rider to stop there was a little disheartening, so if you’re ever in Eureka you could do far worse than hitting up the crew at Cake Batter Batter. They deserve some support.

Chasing Kristen Legan...no way I was going to catch her. Photo by Eric Wynn.
Marlon Brando once rode the DKXL. I was puffing my cheeks out in homage to him. Photo by Eric Wynn.

I rolled on from Eureka, snacking on my chicken wrap, but soon found my resolve slipping a little, and decided that a nap was in order. I am 50 after all…naps are normal for the AARP crowd. I knew the front runners would eschew sleep, but I was on vacation and so I found a little layby just off the road, hid behind some weeds (so that passing riders wouldn’t disturb my slumber or think I had had a coronary), laid my head on my Camelbak and drifted off under the amazing stars above the Flint Hills. It was a well-placed one hour respite and awoke feeling refreshed and clearer. I pedaled on for another couple of hours. Somewhere along there I stuck my front wheel in a rut and went over the bars into a mud bog, but otherwise the ride was progressing smoothly. At the the oil tank farm just below Texaco Hill (about mile 140) I snuck in another 45-minute nap and then made my way to Matfield Green where I scratched around the backside of a BNSF hut and found a water spigot where I topped off some bottles and ate the last of the chicken wrap. Soon after the sun came up and I rolled into Cottonwood Falls for a longer break at the Casey’s (pizza in the morning is very good) and I took some time to reapply various balms and creams that generally keep us endurance riders moving forward.

The leg from Cottonwood Falls to Council Grove was well known to me, both from earlier editions of the Kanza, and from the previous Thursday…when we were taking Shimano pictures there, so the going was pretty easy. Along this section I spied a guy on a motorcycle coming in the opposite direction and he was moving at a very high rate. What I did not know was that I intersected the DK100 course and that it wasn’t a guy on a motorcycle. It was Ashton Lambie, minutes ahead of the rest of his competition, winning the thing aboard a bike that was fitted with a 55-tooth front chainring. Amazing. Almost as amazing as the way the Kansas wind flitted through his moustache at speed, but I digress.

But this random fly-by of Lambie ushered in a new element of the Kanza experience…other riders! Not only was I treated to seeing the fast guys and gals that were chasing Ashton (I almost told them not to bother), but then I started coming across other riders that were well into their own day. And almost every one of them had a whoop and holler for us DKXL riders. It was amazing, and empowering, and dare I say…fun.

A leisurely stop in Council Grove to load up on fluids and adjust a cleat gave way to the most anticipated and feared leg of the ride…the distance between Council Grove and Alma…which included the infamous Little Egypt Road. Fun fact: in the fourth edition of DK (a decade ago), we went this way and although I was nursing a front tire that was going flat, I didn’t want stop while leading the race to fix it, so I pressed hard into the Little Egypt area. A poor line choice and subsequent attempted correction saw me roll the front tire off the rim, crash, and yard sale my shit all over the place. I cracked my helmet, screwed up my back, and rounded off all the corners on my body. The first tube I threw in there didn’t hold and by the time I got it figured out I had been passed by several riders and was caught by eventual winner Mike Marchand. I knew that Mike was going to win because he was asking me questions in full sentences and seemed to be fresh as a daisy while all I could do was grunt monosyllabic responses. Faced with the prospect of moving forward, wounded, with only tube patches if I had another flat (different rules back then), I decided to pull the plug in Alma that year. Instantly regretted it, but it was the right call then and I was determined to not repeat the mistake this year.

Stopping at a convenience store. I wonder if the locals know there's like $40k worth of bikes piled up against the outside of these places at times. Photo by Eric Wynn.

So I approached Little Egypt with a healthy dose of respect and caution, taking each descent super-cautiously, and climbing each hill in my easiest gear, in no hurry. And wonder of wonders…it was fun. I was greeted by DK200 riders coming the other way and just as I entered the toughest section, there were all my friends: Paul, Jon, Janeen, Paulina, Jon (not the same Jon). They all stopped when I did and we exchanged hugs and excitedly gabbed about the day. It was amazing. For them to take time out of their ride to chill with me, even for a moment, was special.

DKXL riders are prohibited from taking outside support and must self-sag. I found those EF bandannas on the ground. I promise. Photo by Jason Ebberts.

I rolled on to Alma, stopping briefly to jump in a creek to help cool my core temperature. The day was heating up and I was really starting to feel the effects of the miles. I was suffering…and I’m not into that anymore. So I swam around for awhile. At Alma I loaded up on more fluids and rested for a while with three other DKXL riders as we conducted a roundtable discussion about other ultra-endurance events we had ridden. We probably could’ve stayed all day, but the finish line was less than 100 miles away and it was too close to not start finishing it off.

I bought all these fluids in Alma, trying to decide which would make me less grumpy. Hint: It wasn't the one on the far left. Or the far right.

Having never ridden the next stretch, I was unsure of what was to come, but I knew the reputation…tough, big climbs and chunky gravel. It did not disappoint. I crawled and clawed my way to Eskridge, convinced that the race organizers had deliberately dumped more rock on the top of each climb in an effort to make it both taller and tougher. I barely made it to the convenience store in Eskridge and almost passed out will waiting in line to purchase my supplies (“C’mon lady…how long does it take you to pick out your pack of cigarettes??”). Once my arms were laden with the needed sustenance, I stumbled back outside and immediately planted myself on the bench nearest the door. And promptly took a nap. The finish line was within sight (almost) but there was no way I was going to get there…I was cooked.

A 30-minute snooze recharged my batteries, and while I was sprawled half-on/half-off the C-store bench the temperature had come down by 1000 degrees, so the way forward seemed more reasonable now. I knew if I could get to Americus the rest of the route would be flat, but I didn’t know about the intervening distance…would it be more of the same soul-crushing climbs I had just been through? Best to approach it cautiously and continue with my tactic of avoiding suffering at all costs.

Thankfully, the route was nowhere near as tough as the previous section and I made some descent progress towards the finish. Familiar roads now began to appear and I could smell the barn. A brief section of rutted road in the dark coupled with a pack of snarling, persistent pooches was a minor inconvenience, but easily dealt with. I kept waiting on the race organizers to throw one or two more haymaker climbs at us, but they never appeared. Apparently Jim & Co. took mercy on us XL riders, perhaps aware that sometimes enough is enough.

Shortly outside the city limits of Emporia, the XL route intersected the 200-mile route. I was roughly aware that there was a chance that I might run into someone I knew that was doing the classic distance of the DK, but I thought the chances were pretty small. It was dark and tough to distinguish any particular rider just by their headlight. But the cycling gods were smiling on me for as soon as I got into the stream of DK200 riders, there were Janeen McCrae (“The Noodleator”) and Jon Takao…two of my dearest friends, that were finishing their 5th DK200s. The serendipity was stunning. Two riders, that I helped coax into doing their first Kanzas would roll into Emporia with me and I would get to hand them their 5x finishers award the next day. If I hadn’t been so dehydrated I would’ve cried.

If I've said it once, I've said it 1000 times...there is no better finish line than Commercial St. Photo by Eric Wynn.

We ticked off the last few miles into town and came across the line together, into the arms of friends and family. It was the perfect end to a 31-hour ride (with a few naps) through the Flint Hills.

Finish line hugs from my least favorite son. Attended to by Jon Takao. Photo by Eric Wynn.

It was likely also an allegory for life. During the course of the race, I strove not to suffer. To be present in the moment (so you don't cut a tire...metaphorical or otherwise) and just keep moving forward a little at a time. When I felt like the suffering was too much, I took a break. When the conditions were favorable, I pressed on. When I came across friends, I stopped and absorbed their generous energy. And through it all I kept reminding myself that the DKXL is supposed to be fun. Just like life.

All the finishers of the 2019 Dirty Kanza Extra Large. Chapeau to all. Photo by Paulina Batiz.